HMIS end users vary greatly in their comfort with technology. From desktops, to laptops, to the tablets used for street outreach, every HMIS end user has a different experience with HMIS software. Some consider it vital to effective service provision, but others consider it a service barrier. Regardless of these differences, the HMIS is, without question, a vital element of homelessness services, and its importance will only expand in the years to come.
So the question then is: How do you make the HMIS usable for all end users, regardless of their technology comfort level?
This difference in technological comfort—also known as the ‘technology gap’—has a direct impact on how effectively end users utilize your HMIS. Then, in turn, these differences have a direct impact on your data quality, and subsequently your funding. This is why it’s imperative that CoCs have an HMIS designed for end-users on either side of this technology gap.
The secret is usability—a user-friendly HMIS can bridge a technology gap of any size.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- The HMIS technology gap: end user demographics in the human services workforce
- Gender differences in technology comfort
- Age differences in technology comfort
- The importance of HMIS usability
- Customizability requirements for a user-friendly HMIS
- Requirement #1: Access/sharing and security
- Requirement #2: System design
- Requirement #3: Program and service configuration
By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of why the technology gap exists, what a successful, user-friendly HMIS looks like, and its importance to serving your CoC’s homeless populations.
The HMIS Technology Gap: End User Demographics in the Human Services Workforce
In order to understand how software usability bridges the technology gap, it’s important to first understand this gap. Interestingly, certain demographic characteristics unique to the Human Services workforce actually widen this technology gap for this sector; understanding how and why is fully relevant to your CoC.
A technology gap is the difference between people who are comfortable with technology (e.g. HMIS software) and those who are not.
In homelessness services, this technology gap is very obvious in most agencies. A single agency will often have HMIS end users who fall along a wide spectrum of technology comfort—one end user may be able to enter HMIS data with the ease while other end users may struggle with every aspect of data entry.
A technology gap is the result of numerous factors, two of which pertain directly to Human Services: 1) the average age, and 2) the gender of the Human Services workforce.
Gender Differences in Technology Comfort
Gender differences contribute to the technology gap. For example, past research has found that there are differences between men and women when it comes to technology confidence. More specifically, this research finds that males tend to have more confidence in using technology than females, and this research also suggests that males have more positive attitudes than females about using technology. (NOTE: It’s important to mention that this research also found that these differences are strictly the result of social stereotypes as opposed to one’s innate ability to use technology.)
This research applies to the HMIS technology gap in an integral manner. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the majority of the Human Services workforce (64 percent) is female. Therefore, more HMIS end users are likely be female, who (according to the research cited above) may be less comfortable with technology.
Age Differences in Technology Comfort
Age differences also drive the technology gap. Younger generations tend to be more comfortable with technology; it has been an integral part of their development. Older generations, however, had to acquire technological skill in adulthood. As a result, technological tasks (such as HMIS data entry) tend to be more difficult as these skills are not native to their naturally occurring skill set.
This concept of generational age differences in technology comfort also applies to the technology gap in homelessness services. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, age is evenly distributed across generations in the Human Services workforce, relatively speaking.
- Baby boomers (1946-1964; ages 51-69): 26 percent
- Generation X’ers (1965-1980; ages 35-50): 34 percent
- Millennials (1981-2000; ages 15-34): 30 percent
As you can see, the distribution of Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers, and Millennials is relatively evenly distributed across the Human Services workforce.
This means that your CoC likely has a proportional representation of HMIS end users from all generational categories (you have roughly a third of HMIS end users from each generational category).
Although the age distribution of HMIS end users is relatively symmetrical, their comfort with HMIS applications is not always as uniform. Each generation differs in technology comfort due to the speed at which modern technology has evolved.
Comfort with Technology Across Generations
The table below highlights the key differences in technology comfort among generations. Keep in mind that these are gross generalities, but they are still helpful in understanding HMIS end users.
- Use of technology is acquired; they were born with computers on the horizon.
- They learned technology after completing their formal education.
- Use of technology is assimilated; they were the first to become computer literate.
- Grew up with technology, for the most part.
- Use of technology is integral; they cut their teeth on technology.
- Began to use technology at age 3, on average.
So, the Human Services workforce comprises a majority of women, and also comprises end users of all ages. This means that your HMIS end users vary greatly in their comfort with technology.
The Importance of HMIS Usability
As we now know, age and gender differences contribute to the creation of the technology gap, particularly in the field of Human Services. As mentioned earlier, HMIS usability is the secret to bridging this gap.
Usability puts the user, rather than the system, at the center of the HMIS design process. This philosophy, called user-centered design, incorporates end user feedback and advocacy from the beginning of the design process. The needs of the end user are at the forefront of any design decisions. Because it’s driven directly from end user feedback, a user-friendly HMIS will eliminate problems caused by the technology gap.
But what make usability possible? Software customizability is key.
Usability and customizability share a symbiotic relationship—one cannot exist in the absence of the other. In order for an HMIS to be user-friendly, it must be easy to customize in ways that fit the needs of the CoC. Likewise, each element of the HMIS must be fully customized in order for it to be relevant and highly intuitive to end users of all technology comfort levels. As such, a customizable HMIS offers CoCs endless opportunities to eliminate the technology gap.
HMIS customization should not be limited to only developers, however. This being said, there is one distinguishing factor of true customizability—the element of autonomy.
Customizability loses its value if the System Administrator must rely heavily upon IT staff, or even their HMIS vendor, to customize their system. Nobody knows the technology needs of their end users better than the System Administrator. Thus, it is infinitely important that System Administrators be empowered to customize their own system with minimal guidance from outside resources.
Customizability Requirements for a User-Friendly HMIS
In order to promote usability and therefore reduce the technology gap, the following HMIS elements and service processes must be fully customizable in the following ways.
Requirement #1: Access/Sharing and Security
Agency Sharing Rights and Exceptions
Ability to manage agency data sharing policies and grant 1-to-1 sharing exceptions at the agency, department, program, and end user levels.
Access Roles and Rights
Ability to create and manage access roles at a granular level. This limits end users to gain function to only the areas of the system that their role provides them.
User Setup and Management
Create new end users, edit existing end users, reset passwords, disable end users, manage client PKI certificate, manage IP Whitelist address, manage PDF user policies, set access roles, create default profile screens, force password changes, grant additional agency access, and other additional user level management functions.
Requirement #2: System Design
Completely customizable, easy-to-use, and extremely powerful screen designer to allow for the custom creation of assessment screens and program management screens (i.e. profile, enrollment, status, exit, follow-up screens).
Simple interface to allow for the creation and management of custom database fields. Text, checkbox, pick-list, number, dollar, and other additional data formats should be available. The HMIS should automatically create and translate the management to the relational database.
Full customization of system variables, such as session idle limits, maximum password attempts, Area Median Income (AMI), Poverty Guidelines, email templates, client forms, file categories, and other additional customizations should be available.
Report Library Management
Ability to register and modify customized reports for inclusion in a user accessible Report Library. Reports should be able to be assigned to specific agencies, and certain designated access roles that can allow only select users to view specified reports should be available.
Requirement #3: Program and Service Configuration
Program Template Management
Ability to create and manage Program Templates. For example, the system should be capable of managing any non-HUD programs that use completely separate Enrollment, Status, and Exit screens. These templates should be defined to provide standardized workflow.
Goal Template Management
Ability to create and manage Program Goal Templates. The Goals Editor should be highly configurable, and allow for Pass/ Fail of goals to be automatically assigned to client- enrolled programs. Goals can consist of items such as “Receive Mental Health Services within 90 Days,” or “Obtain Permanent Housing within 30 Days.”
The unique demographics of the Human Service workforce create a particularly distinct technology gap. This means that end users with high levels of technology comfort will view the HMIS as a useful tool, but those end users with low levels of technology comfort may view the HMIS as a service barrier. However, regardless of these differences, each end user must utilize the HMIS. Therefore, the HMIS must be designed with usability in mind in order to bridge this technology gap, and customization is the cornerstone of usability.
Simply stated, successful HMIS applications should be unintimidating. This increases user engagement and confidence, allowing end users of any comfort level to focus on client services without the hindrance of the technology gap. This type of approachable HMIS is achieved through customization of the application.
While this usability ensures that all end users are able to interact with the HMIS application effectively, it goes a step further to also benefit service provision. Thus, usability—which is achieved through customization—has far-reaching positive impacts on how effectively your CoC can serve its client population.